Operation Action of the Ligurian Sea

The 'Action of the Ligurian Sea' was a British undertaking against Germans warships in the Gulf of Genoa of the Ligurian Sea off the north-west coast of Italy (18 March 1945).

The scene was set for this action by a German flotilla of three ships conducting an offensive minelaying operation at night, when it was intercepted by two British destroyers that then sank two of the German ships and severely damaged the third in what was the last German naval surface action of World War II.

At the 'Cricket' conference (30 January/3 February 1945) on Malta as the first of the two parts of the 'Argonaut' conference in the Crimean city of Yalta as 'Magneto', the Western Allies decided to undertake the 'Snowflake' transfer air and ground units from Italy to the Western Front where they would strengthen the Allied forces in France and Belgium. In February and March 1945, the Canadian I Corps was moved from Italy to the French port of Marseille for overland onward movement to the north. Escort for the troopships was provided by Contre-amiral Robert Jaujard’s 'Flank' Force of British, Free French and US ships, with cover provided by aircraft of the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force.

On the night of 17/18 March, the last three operational warships of Korvettenkapitän Franz Burkart’s 10th Torpedoboots-Flottille undertook an offensive minelaying operation in an area to the north-east of Corsica. Setting out from Genoa, the 'Ariete' class torpedo boats TA 24 (ex-Italian Arturo) and TA 29 (ex-Italian Eridano) laid 56 mines in an area to the south of Gorgona Island, while the destroyer TA 32 (ex-Yugoslav Dubrovnik) laid 76 mines in an area to the north of Cap Corse. After making rendezvous for their return to Genoa, the three German ships were about 23 miles (37 km) to the north of Cap Corse when they were detected by an Allied shore radar at Livorno. Four Allied destroyers of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla were on patrol in the area: these were the French 'L’Adroit' class Basque and 'Bourrasque' class Tempête, and the British 'L' and 'M' class destroyers Lookout and Meteor.

In the early hours of 18 March, all the destroyers but Meteor received the radar report from Livorno. Capitaine de vaisseau André Léon Jean Marie Morazzani, the senior officer aboard Tempête, then instructed the two British ships to intercept the intruders, while he led the older and slower French destroyers to the south-east in case the German ships doubled back to intercept a convoy near Cap Corse. Lookout's senior officer, Commander D. H. F. Hetherington, used radio to co-ordinate the British effort, which went on separate courses tp the north-east at full speed. By the time Morazzani was sure that the German ships were no threat to the convoy, his two French destroyers were too far away to join the action.

Lookout established radar contact with the German ships, steaming at 20 kt, at 03.00 on 18 March on a heading just to the west of north. Lookout closed at high speed from ahead and opened fire with her 4.7-in (119.3-mm) main armament at a range of 5,000 yards (4725 m). Minutes later she reversed course to move parallel to the Germans and launched torpedoes. The Germans had been taken wholly by surprise and Lookout's radar-directed guns quickly hit TA 24 and TA 29. The latter dropped out of formation while the other two ships retreated to the north. Lookout let them go to concentrate her efforts on the crippled TA 29, which she circled as she continuously with her six 4.7-in guns from a range as short as 2,000 yards (1830 m). TA 29 replied with her two 100-mm (3.94-in) guns, whose crews hit Lookout several times. One burst of 20-mm cannon rounds hit some smoke floats and started a small fire that was quickly extinguished.

Lookout continued to fire until just after 04.00. After taking more than 40 hits, TA 29 caught fire and sank. She lost only 20 men despite Lookout's intense and accurate fire.

Meteor had meanwhile altered course to intercept the other German ships and, at about the time that Lookout engaged TA 29, gained radar contact at a range of 12,300 yards (11250 m) as the two German ships were retreating to the north. Meteor opened fire at a range of 8,000 yards (7315 m) and hit TA 24 almost immediately. Seeing the flash of the hit in the dark, Meteor launched a torpedo salvo a few minutes later, and one of the weapons struck TA 24. Meteor's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander R. D. H. S. Pankhurst, saw a 'geyser of flame and metal' and TA 24 sank just after 04.00 after losing 30 men in 13 minutes.

The 'Action of the Ligurian Sea' was the last surface action fought by German ships in World War II, and the success of the British destroyers put an end to even the possibility of German deep-water offensive operations in the Ligurian Sea. The action was also the last surface naval action fought by the British in the western theatre and the last substantial surface action fought in the Mediterranean Sea.

TA 32 was damaged but managed to escape, and was scuttled in Genoa on 25 April. The British destroyers recovered 244 survivors, including Burkart, floating in rafts and boats after TA 24 and TA 29 had sunk.